Man sentenced for Vista Fleet tampering
A Twin Cities man who set the two Vista Fleet boats adrift in the Duluth harbor last fall will serve probation for the crime, but a felony conviction will remain on his record.
Gregory Mark Sullwold, 48, of Excelsior, Minn., was sentenced on a theft charge Friday in State District Court in Duluth.
Sixth Judicial District Judge David Johnson stayed a 13-month prison term in favor of two years of supervised probation. But he rejected Sullwold's request for a stay of imposition, which could have allowed the offense to eventually be reduced to a misdemeanor.
"The facts of this case are so egregious and staggering in nature that I cannot grant a stay of imposition," Johnson told him.
Sullwold pleaded guilty in April, admitting that he unmoored both boats — the three-deck Vista Star and smaller Vista Queen — from their docks behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center overnight Sept. 21.
The boats were left unoccupied and adrift for several hours in the harbor near the Aerial Lift Bridge before being secured; they were not damaged.
Defense attorney Joel Gephart told the judge Friday that the Vista incident came as part of a series of run-ins with the law for Sullwold during what he described as a "brief but intense" relapse after 15 years of sobriety.
Sullwold, who is currently serving time at the Hennepin County Workhouse on a separate terroristic threats conviction, repeatedly apologized for his actions.
"I'm sorry for all the stuff that happened," Sullwold told the judge. "I can't believe it all happened. But I know it did, and it has been a life-changing experience for me."
A criminal complaint filed in the case described a narrow brush that occurred between the 66-foot Vista Queen and the 730-foot lake freighter John D. Leitch, which was making entry into the Duluth ship canal while the Vista vessels were adrift.
According to the complaint, the crew of the Leitch was notified of the unmanned vessels by the Aerial Lift Bridge operator, who'd also called 911 to report the situation.
A combined emergency response from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Duluth Fire Department, and two Vista Fleet employees "who were able seamen, capable of piloting the empty vessels," ferried the vessels back to dock.
Because the crime occurred "in such a historic, iconic and important area," said the complaint, police had access to "a plethora of video," including one disseminated widely by the News Tribune and other local media outlets of a sole suspect on shore, leading the Vista Queen down the Minnesota Slip, through the Minnesota Slip Bridge, which was raised at the time, and out into the open water.
As the investigation into the vessel tampering advanced, one officer remembered dealing with Sullwold earlier that night, for alleged mischief in Canal Park including the alleged threat against the Club Saratoga.
Sullwold was arrested Sept. 22 by Duluth police in the unrelated Hennepin County case. In custody, he confessed to the Vista tampering, with police saying he "seemed to boast of his knowledge in boats" and expressed interest in seeing the vessels floating in the harbor.
Friday's sentencing was not attended by any Vista representatives. The judge left 60 days for the business to file any restitution claims.
"I want to apologize to the boat owners themselves," Sullwold told the News Tribune afterward. "I apologize for freaking everyone out."